It’s still one of the better-kept secrets of family entertainment that the most imaginatively daring and influential animation house in the world isn’t Pixar, but Japan’s Studio Ghibli, best known for co-founder and animation virtuoso Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki is revered in animation circles, but Ghibli films haven’t yet become the phenomenon in the States that they are in Japan and around the globe.
The Secret World of Arrietty, now on home video, could help change that. (Also available in new Blu-ray/DVD editions are a pair of Ghibli classics: Miyazaki's epic steampunk action-adventure Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Yoshifumi Kondō’s sensitive coming-of-age drama Whisper of the Heart.)
The material is already familiar: It’s based on The Borrowers, Mary Norton’s beloved series of children’s novels about tiny people living in the secret spaces of human beings’ homes (previously seen in a number of large and small-screen adaptations). Arrietty is also Ghibli at its gentlest, most accessible and immediately appealing, without the narrative weirdness or more challenging content of some of their other films.
Miyazaki wrote the screenplay for Arrietty, which is helmed by animator and first-time director Yonebayashi Hiromasa. Arrietty bears many traits that typically distinguish Ghibli films from average Hollywood family fare. The protagonist is a spunky, appealing heroine with likable parents. There’s an antagonist who causes considerable grief, but she isn’t really evil, and there’s no out-and-out villain. Conflicts and problems are dealt with in low-key, matter-of-fact ways that leave plenty of room for the ordinary rhythms of life.
Loosely following its source material, the film tells the story of a young Borrower girl, Arrietty (voiced in the American dub by Bridgit Mendler), whose parents, Pod and Homily (Will Arnett and Amy Poehler), have raised to her avoid “Beans” (human beings) at all costs, but who somehow forms a tentative friendship with a human boy named Shawn.
Shawn has come to stay at the country house of his great-aunt for rest prior to surgery for a life-threatening condition. The calmness with which he explains his predicament to Arrietty, and his acceptance of the inevitability of death, are qualities strikingly unlike American animated fare.
In a Hollywood cartoon, Pod’s insistence on moving the family after Arrietty is spotted by humans would lead to father-daughter conflict and an anti-prejudice theme. Arrietty would argue that humans aren’t all bad. Pod would get angry and punish her after learning that she had been talking to the boy. In the end, the boy would save the day, causing Pod at last to see the light. None of this happens in The Secret World of Arrietty.
Most distinctively Ghibli is the painterly beauty of the both the human and Borrower worlds, rendered with extraordinary persuasiveness and authority. Every plant and flower is a real species; architecture and objects are authentic in every detail. It is simply a joy to watch, to look, to inhabit this world. Hollywood computer animation becomes ever more sophisticated and detailed, but even in 3D, all the processing power in the world can’t touch the artistry of Ghibli’s lavish handiwork.
For more ultra-gentle Ghibli, check out My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Ponyo. For slightly more adventurous fare, see Castle in the Sky and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Finally, among Miyazaki’s most acclaimed films are two of his most mature: Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. See “The Worlds of Hayao Miyazaki” for more.
The Secret World of Arrietty in 60 seconds: My “Reel Faith” video review.
Reader response to the lovely family film The Secret World of Arrietty, I’m delighted to say, has been almost entirely positive. However, I did receive one negative email from a reader who not only didn’t enjoy the film, but considered it downright immoral. Why? Because the Borrowers, tiny people who live in secret in big people’s homes, survive by “borrowing” (i.e., taking) the things they need from the big people.
Don’t settle for a mysterious island when there’s a whole secret world to be discovered.
The Secret World of Arrietty just might change the way you look at the world around you — right around you. A wide-eyed sense of discovery and revelation permeates the film, and what it reveals is … the mystery and wonder of an ordinary home.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.